Confession: I don't know know how to start writing about this film. I've been staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes, spitting out various lines that attempt to convey just how powerful and memorable and soul crushing and Oscar worthy 12 Years a Slave is, but none of it sounds right. It all just sounds like I'm a salesman outside your door hocking another movie about slavery. "But this one's different!" I might pronounce, just as you tighten your bathrobe and comb your brain for a way out as you eye the cup of coffee sitting within your grasp. "This isn't Django Unchained! That was a fine film, see, but it's sort of like the comic book version of the real story. You haven't seen a movie about slavery like this before. You haven't witnessed its atrocities in this manner, no you haven't. You haven't climbed inside the lifeless eyes of a person who's just been savagely whipped to where the only thing between them and death is our most uncontrollable desire as human beings: the desire to survive. To live. That's what this movie is about. It's about living. And surely, good neighbor, you can relate to that."
You're not convinced, though. It all sounds like poetic hyperbole, and you point out the stack of DVDs scattered haphazardly across your kitchen counter -- "all this stuff you still need to watch" -- but I can tell I've caught your ear. "Did I mention it's based on a true story? An incredibly haunting story about a free man and citizen of New York named Solomon Northup who's tricked into traveling to Washington in 1841 with the promise of work only to be drugged and sold into slavery instead." I stumble while trying to pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor's name correctly, but I make up for it by explaining just how rich and complex his performance is. "The emotions he conveys just with his eyes alone are enough to stab you in the heart; in that place reserved for imagining what it would be like if you were suddenly ripped from your wife and children only to be sold and subsequently treated like a piece of meat for the next 12 years of your life."
I spit out comparisons like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, two films that also did an incredible job at accurately conveying the atrocities of real-life events while also remaining grounded in stories of human perseverance. "It's our only way of truly connecting with these times in our history where evil reigned. If we relive them through the eyes of those who were strong willed and determined not to let the Devil take their soul, then maybe revisiting their suffering will ultimately help cure our own demons and build a future that learns from its mistakes."
Ah, but of course you want to know about Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, and the rest of an ensemble cast who truly bring themselves to some of the darkest places we've seen on-screen in years. "Sure, yes, Michael Fassbender plays a dirty, selfish slave owner whose ruthless ego is often tested in ways that reveal a side of him we haven't yet seen as an actor. His brutality is one of the most engaging parts of the movie, and his obsession with a particular slave provides the film's most striking moments." We run through a list of those who pop in briefly, but definitely make themselves known. Like Paul Giamatti, who strips slaves before lining them up and parading them around a room like prized stallions, sleazily selling their best attributes to potential buyers. Also Paul Dano gets another chance to do his best "crazy Paul Dano" impression as a sick, deranged slave driver. "But Pitt, on the other hand..." -- and this is where you lean in a bit closer; your bathrobe coming undone, your morning coffee gone cold by this point -- "he's only in the film briefly, as a sort of "traveling dude" who may be Solomon's best chance at escaping captivity."
"That's it? Only a few minutes of Brad Pitt?"
I almost lose you with that little bit of trivia, but I make up for it by telling you more about the film's breakout star, a newcomer in her first feature film. "Her name is Lupita Nyong'o, and she plays the object of Fassbender's obsession, a slave whose ability to pick an obscene amount of cotton drives her owner to the most disgustingly euphoric places. She has scenes in this movie that will crush your heart and evoke the sort of nightmares that may haunt you for days or weeks after. See this film just to witness one of the greatest debut performances of the decade. This girl is it. This girl is real. This girl will put you through changes."
I know I've got you when you wave off further plot and character descriptions, because like me you want to go in knowing as little as possible. We briefly converse about Steve McQueen's direction; how he takes his time and lingers on scenes, be it the lush and mysterious swamp land of the South, or the brutality of almost hanging a man -- McQueen doesn't just re-create bad memories, he creates new ones.
Finally, you stop me. You have things to do, a weekend to enjoy. I've already bummed out your morning with tales of our horrifying history, but you give me the satisfaction in admitting your interest in the film is now high. I've done my job. I've told you what I know and how I feel. I've conveyed my opinion that this is one of -- if not the best -- movie of the year, and that ignoring it would rob you of witnessing one of the most powerful films you may ever see.
I bid you a good day, and before you're able to reheat that cup of coffee I am off to do this all over again.
12 Years a Slave is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Check out more of our coverage from this year's fest right here.
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